Attorney Landon Kingsley craves order and normalcy, and aside from his well-hidden vice of smoking, he lives the life that everyone expects from him in his hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee. Recently engaged to beautiful nursing student, April May, Landon’s new fiancée is everything he could want in a wife. She is devoted to her faith and family and truly loves him.
April’s cousin, Ella Casey, has returned to Kingsport after ten years of pursuing a career as a country music singer in Nashville. Ella’s failed career and affair with a married music producer scandalises her in the eyes of the town, but her legal troubles drive her to Landon for help. Landon finds himself increasingly attracted to Ella and more discontent than ever with the path he has chosen for his life. Amid a firestorm of family and town gossip, Landon is tormented by his past and the complicated decision of whether to listen to God’s voice or follow his own desires.
SONG FROM THE ASHES, a modern retelling of the classic Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, explores the dilemma between the pursuit of dreams and personal happiness versus contentment in God’s plan for marriage and love.
The snow was already forming crusts on the unsalted parts of the road that January evening. The weathermen had talked of a dusting, or perhaps even showers, but the severity of the precipitation was wholly unexpected. It was only a high school event—a talent show held at the local civic centre Even so, Landon Kingsley was upset with himself and his late arrival. Landon always made a point of being on time, but tonight he had lingered over the reading of a brief. At least that was how he rationalised it. In all honestly, he hadn’t wanted to stub out his cigarette prematurely. He always enjoyed a smoke when his mind was preoccupied.
Landon knew his girlfriend and her parents would be waiting for him. He slipped into the rear of the auditorium and scanned the mass of people for April and her family. She had texted that they were sitting near the front, and he cringed thinking that would make his entrance all the more embarrassing—everyone would see him entering late.
April’s two younger sisters were both in high school, and although he had not heard them sing, Landon understood they were talented. In fact, April’s Aunt Julia informed him that the entire family possessed great musical talent.
“On her daddy’s side of the family, everyone tends toward musical talent in piano and guitar. On her mama’s side, nearly everyone has beautiful singing voices—especially that Ella—she’s out in Nashville right now, you know. She’s been out there for years singing country music. I guess she does all right.”
Landon had never met Ella, but he had heard about her, and he understood that through some circumstance or other she would actually be attending the talent show that night.
As he made his way down the sloping aisle, he saw familiar faces—many of them flashing him a smile and a wave. In a town of this size, people knew each other or at least knew of one another. Part of the tri-cities area in Northeastern Tennessee consisting of Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, Kingsport was the second largest of the three—a town of around fifty-thousand that had grown a little over the years but was no booming metropolis either. It retained a small-town feel, a place where people still smiled and greeted one another on the streets. A town where people spent their whole lives. Retirees from up north settled down there, and people who had lived there most or all of their lives called it home and heaven. The downside was that gossip spread like wildfire, and no one was ever free from the scrutiny of folks who wanted what you had or who didn’t think you had enough.
Mid way down the rows of seats, Landon glimpsed the face of Dora Feldman. He had represented her husband last year when he was sued for a property line dispute. A little further down, he saw the scowling face of Dawson McMurphy, who had never forgotten that Landon represented his arch rival in a nasty court case several years ago. Landon couldn’t even remember the specifics of the case now, but Mr. McMurphy had never allowed him to forget the outcome of it. Landon and his client had won—Mr. McMurphy had lost and exhibited sour grapes ever since.
Sitting at the end of the third row, craning her neck to see him and then waving wildly was the lovely, smiling face of April. She looked relieved when she saw him and rasped in a stage whisper as he fell into the seat beside her, “I was worried you’d forgotten.”
He shook his head, returning the whisper. “I got caught up with some business.” It was mostly true.
Her forehead and nose wrinkled simultaneously. “Have you been smoking?”
Desiring to avoid another half-lie, Landon simply smiled and patted her leg. “I haven’t missed your sisters have I?”
April shook her head. “No, but you almost did! They’re up next.”
Landon turned to the act finishing their pitiful version of an old Led Zeppelin tune, “Stairway to Heaven.” He couldn’t believe teenagers in this day and age knew and still appreciated the tune. The boy on the stage fumbled his way through an acoustic version of the song, interspersing his performance with “oops!” and “I’m sorry” and “I didn’t mean to do that.” Finally, the boy’s misery was over and the crowd applauded, more relieved than entertained.
Landon cast a glance down the aisle to the left of him. April’s mom sat beside her daughter, and she smiled at him sweetly. It had only been this week that Mrs. May had said to him shyly, “I know it’s not really my place,” her Tennessee accent drawing out the vowel of plaay-ce, “but I just want you to know that April has so enjoyed the last few months ya’ll have been dating.”
Landon had been contemplating asking April to marry him, but not before he was absolutely certain of her answer. He was quite a bit older than her--thirty-seven years to her twenty-five—and his past was much more checkered. April had taken great pains to let him know of her purity and plan to stay that way until she was married. He wished he could come to her in the same state, but his life had taken him other places and there had been many women. Therefore, he was concerned his past might have scared her away, and he said as much to her mother.
To this confession, Alissa May sweetly patted his hand and told him if he and April ended up together, the family would be only too happy to welcome him as one of them. “April’s father and I are ten years apart, and things have turned out good for us. And I know April is not nearly as concerned with your past as she is with the man you are right now.”
Landon looked over and smiled at the lovely dark-haired girl beside him. Beyond her he could see April’s father—a man of few words—quiet, but infinitely wise and well-read. Charles May had worked for Eastman Chemical Company his entire life. He rose up through the ranks to become an executive with the company—a career which had given him wealth and allowed him to approach his retirement with ease.
Landon noted a few other relatives that he had seen at various family functions over the past three months while he had been dating April, but then he noticed the new face at the end of the aisle. She, too, locked eyes with him and waved a stilted salute.
“That’s my cousin Ella,” April told him. “She’s just come into town from Nashville.”
Landon nodded. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Your aunt said she’d be here tonight. She’s visiting with your family?”
“Well, sort of. It’s a long story. But basically, things haven’t worked out so well for her in Nashville. Mama told me she’s back in Kingsport to stay for now.”
“I see.” Landon thought Ella looked the part of the country singer. She was dressed in jeans and a suede jacket, but he couldn’t help his eyes being drawn to the top she wore underneath and all it revealed. Ella’s brown hair was highlighted with blond streaks and fell in soft waves over her shoulders. From the reflection of the stage lights, she looked like she had clear blue eyes and a straight, white smile. She reminded him a little of a country star he couldn’t put a name to at that moment. He could sort of see a family resemblance in the profile. Both April and Ella had straight sloping noses that turned up at the tip. They possessed strong chins and adequate cheek-bones, but the overall effect of their appearance wasn’t much alike.
“Oh, here they go!” April said, redirecting his attention to her young sisters appearing on the stage. The oldest one held an acoustic guitar and the other stood close beside her. It seemed to take the two girls a long time to begin. One was still fiddling with the tuners on the guitar, and the other one giggled nervously beside her.
During this tense interval, Landon considered the possibility of proposing to April. It was early on, he knew, but it was certainly not unheard of. She had, at the commencement of their friendship, conveyed to him that she felt ready to marry and start a family. April had graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee in some generic discipline that he couldn’t remember, but now she was pursuing a nursing degree at East Tennessee State University, having decided that she really wanted to be in the medical field.
Landon found it attractive that his future wife should have some sort of profession. It gave him respect for her—that she had something going on in her life besides him. His own mother had a talent for gardening and writing, and for years she wrote articles for the magazine Gardens of America. Occasionally she had traveled, giving seminars on landscaping, gardening and planting, and dispensing advice on what kinds of flowers grew well in what types of soil, etc.
Landon did wish that April was a little more conversational on the matters that interested him, but one couldn’t have everything. And he assumed that it was this sort of pickiness in the past that caused him to remain single into his thirty-seventh year. Landon loved books—especially classical literature; he loved music of all kinds, but especially old seventies music and country; he also enjoyed wine and the occasional cigar or cigarette. Maybe April didn’t share these interests, but she was a wonderful and stunningly beautiful Christian girl who wanted marriage, a home, and a family, and at the end of the day, that was all that mattered.
Megan Whitson Lee grew up in Tennessee but moved to the Washington, D.C. area as a teenager. She worked for criminal attorneys before earning her master’s degree from George Mason University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. Previously she received a Bachelor of Arts in Music followed by a year-long residence in London where she worked as a Literary Assistant. Her self-published first novel All That is Right and Holy won second place in the 2009 Christian Choice Book Awards. Megan teaches high school English in Fairfax County, Virginia where she lives with her husband and two greyhounds.
Research and the Imagination
What was a common name for a woman in 1870s? Would a man wear a vest or a waistcoat in early 1900s England? Where in the world is Stoke-on-Trent? What do undertakers do?
Research is, and always has been, important to writers of all genres. But the methods writers use to conduct their research have evolved. We’ve come a long way from spending hours holed up in libraries with stacks of dusty, seven-hundred page reference books, or scanning through hours of microfiches.
As a contemporary fiction writer, I don’t research in the same way as someone who writes historical romance, nonfiction, biographies, etc. Having said that, research is still important to everything I write—even if it means I’m researching the way a person might react to receiving some bad news, a marriage proposal, or a job interview.
My typical research usually involves the novel’s setting, characters’ occupational details, and the appropriate background events. For instance, in Song from the Ashes, set in a small town in Tennessee, I wanted to include specific setting dating back to the 1940s. In order to research the information, I contacted people with personal connections to the owner of the locations, and I looked at online resources.
I tend to write about places and things I know. Geographical research is sometimes challenging (especially if you’ve never been to the location). If possible, I take a trip to the spot (a great excuse for day trips or a full-blown vacation) or consult maps, online searches, etc. For Song from the Ashes, the setting was my hometown, so I filled in the gaps through several visits or phone calls to friends and relatives. These days, however, the internet is an invaluable tool. Writers can explore Paris, London, or Amsterdam by watching hours of Youtube travel videos or looking up city maps or online mapping services.
Obviously for writers of historical fiction where authenticity and detail is crucial, the research is much more intensive and may include databases, old newspapers, interviews with locals, and travel.
My first book, All that is Right and Holy, required a lot of research because it dealt with sex trafficking. For that novel, I exhaustively interviewed experts, read narratives and case studies, and watched numerous documentaries. Because the story involved emotions and experiences I’d never encountered, I sought advice and information from people who worked in the anti-trafficking industry and recovering sex addicts; even attending conferences at the State Department provided reams of information—more than I could use.
Finally, traditional research is valuable, but that which emerges from the mind of the writer may pre-inform that information. Checking facts, details, and setting is mandatory for credibility and authenticity, but our own instinct as a writer often leads us in the right direction. It is sometimes surprising how close to the truth the imagination actually travels.